Real vs. Rhetorical Liberalism

Over on the Guardian’s Comment is Free, William Harrison argues that releasing Khodorkovsky and providing citizenship for New Times journalist Natalia Morar (whom we’ve featured quite extensively on the blog) are the two tests for Dmitry Medvedev to show he means what he says about ending legal nihilism.

But if we are really to trust Medvedev’s words on freedom of the media and “legal nihilism”, we need to see some concrete action. Two cases that have hit the news recently in Russia can be seen as a test as to whether he really is committed, as his words suggest, to moving towards a more liberal style of rule in Russia – and, just as important, whether he is capable of achieving it.

First, the recent decision to press more charges against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky indicates one of two things: either the investigators are testing which way the wind is blowing, or the siloviki, worried by Medvedev’s liberal tone in speeches, are drawing a line in the sand.Either way, if Medvedev really wants to send a signal to the west, both that his words are not just idle chitchat and that he is the man now in charge of Russia and not Putin or the siloviki, he will allow Khodorkovsky to be released (he is eligible for this having served half his term).Second, if Medvedev means what he says about keeping the media free and fighting corruption, then he will consider the appeal by Russian liberal magazine the New Times to grant Russian citizenship to Moldovan-born journalist Natalya Morar – as would no doubt have happened had she not published a series of articles on corruption in Russia and Kremlin-controlled fundingof political parties. She was refused entry to Russia in December by FSB border guards after being designated a “threat to national security”. One of her articles implicated high-ranking FSB general, Alexander Bortnikov.That Medvedev will do something in these cases is, no doubt, wishful thinking – at least until he has built up a sufficient power base of his own to allow such radical action. But these are intertwined: to escape Putin’s influence and build independent support among the elites and the population he needs to differentiate himself from his predecessor.